Do I speak aloud so everyone can hear me? Do I cry alone so no one knows I’m there? I hold on to everything that’s given to me, so that my tears may show darkness how to care.
Those are the questions I ask as a transgender woman in prison facing discrimination, objectification, and abuse. It’s like being trapped in a dark room with only flickers of light, little glimpses of agitating staff members poking at your sanity.
Ya’see, three years ago, I transitioned in prison. In the free world, I had too many stereotypes to maintain — I was going to church, singing gospel, selling drugs, and getting high. I was all over the place, having a total identity crisis.
But in prison, I met a guy, we got close, and I started to let my guard down. He brought out something in me I didn’t understand, but it felt natural. I tiptoed around that memory for at least a year after I was transferred. I was so different internally than what people saw. On the outside, I was masculine (well, sort of) with soft features, but I wanted to be a lady. I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be a wife. Lying on that rigid ol’ mattress, I realized: I’m transgender. I battled with what that meant, and at first, I felt a lot of self-doubt and confusion. Then one day without my permission, I found myself being me.
But being myself in prison comes at a cost. I quickly started to understand how many men in prison see transgender women as some sort of novelty. I’m supposed to wash clothes, make meals, and keep the living area clean. It’s part of the politics of prison.
For a while, those politics caused me to lose track of who I am and what I want in life. My dreams of being a musician began to fade away. My kindness became my weakness. Before I went to prison, I could speak openly with people. But in prison, words don’t mean the same things they mean in the free world. We’re held captive by what we’ve told a prisoner is “supposedwp_poststo be. Prisoners make assumptions about each other based on race, case factors, and sexual orientation, and sometimes dangers arise from that. Some call LGBTQ+ people “punks.”
With all the BS floating around behind the wall, I have to fight my way through the clusterfuck of expectations, as if I’m here to serve. It makes me feel small, inhuman. To most men here, transgender women are not who we are, but who they want us to be.
My old cellmate — I call him “Mr. Lack of Gratitude” — told me one night, “Know your place, I’m the man.” In another relationship, a man made it clear that I would be stabbed for walking away from him. It wasn’t an idle threat — I’ve seen a girl get stabbed on the yard by her jealous ex-boyfriend. After he calmed himself down, he sat me down, dropped his head, and said, “I can’t see you walking around the yard with someone else, happy, when you should be happy with me. So you have got to go.”
Some inmates only see me as a possession, and the religious ones simply consider me an abomination. The officers dehumanize me in too many ways when they strip search me in a room of men. But an old friend once told me that not everyone is going to agree with my choices in life, and they’re entitled to that. That’s when I realized, if I live to satisfy everyone else, how am I going to be happy with myself? I had to learn to let people be people.
No matter what, I can still rest assured that despite every act of discrimination I’ve faced, when my insecurities and self-doubt try to sabotage my joy, there is a light. Someone or something will pull me up from whatever pit I’m climbing from. It is my duty as a woman to pay attention, learn, grow, and contribute to the world around me. And I hope my journey guides me in the direction of peace, of love, and of understanding.